Learning out Loud in Milwaukee, WI

Rock Island State Park

A few things to know about Rock Island State Park:

  1. It requires two ferries to get there: to Washington Island, then to Rock.
  2. You can buy both tickets before you leave the mainland.
  3. The ferry to Washington Island arrives at Detroit Harbor. The ferry to Rock leaves from Jackson Harbor. Eight miles by road separate the two so, you’ll want some kind of wheels.
  4. However you choose to get to Jackson Harbor, you need to leave those wheels on the shore. No cars, bikes, scooters, etc. Allowed on Rock Island.
  5. Rock Island is fantastic and worth the extra effort to get there.
Green blue waters of Lake Michigan in the foreground, the focus of the photo is the early 20th century boat house at the Rock Island harbor. Two arched entrances for slips are at water leve, with a large hall built on top. In the background, the green of the island’s fields and forests.
The iconic Rock Island boathouse.

Rock Island State Park lies a mile north of Jackson Harbor, which form a narrow and often perilous strait between them that connects Green Bay with the rest of Lake Michigan. The ferry to Rock Island runs most days between Memorial Day and Indigenous People’s Day (née Columbus Day), unless the weather is crummy in which case, some or all ferries for the day may be canceled. If you’re planning a visit, think ahead and be prepared to adjust your plans based on the weather. I planned to visit a day earlier, and am glad I didn’t have to stick to that plan because the remaining ferries were canceled by the early afternoon.

Choppy waters splash against the ferry hull as it passes the strait between Washington and Rock Islands.
A view of the sometimes tumultuous gap between Washington and Rock Island. If you sit on the side, prepare to get splashed.

You can tent camp on the island, and it’s pretty cool to see campers lined up for the ferry with all their gear, backpacks, coolers, etc. But if you don’t have time or desire to, it’s a perfect day trip destination for hikers of almost any ambition. The hike around the island on Thordarson Loop is just over five miles, with another three miles of spur trails through the interior.

If you plan to camp, one of the only ways to stay on the island, I’d recommend planning some extra time, or even an extra night on Washington on either end of the trip just in case a storm blows in and you can’t get there or back the day you expected to. Bring extra food in case you need to spend an extra night, too. There are extremely limited resources once you’re there.

The 1910 lighthouse on Rock island taken from the south.
The 1910 Lighthouse. Inhabited until the 40s when the light was automated and in service until the 80s when the light was replaced with a separate, and fully automated tower.

I hiked the Thordarson loop segment to the lighthouse and back, and nothing else. This was mostly because I had another 8 miles of biking and 200 miles of driving on the other end of my day and I didn’t want to burn myself out. If I’d have been there the day before, I probably would have stayed longer and hiked the whole island.

Other islands and distant Michigan shores as seen from the top of the light tower at the Rock Island lighthouse.
Through the windows on Rock Island looking toward Michigan. The Escanaba area is faintly visible on the left side of the horizon.

Rock Island State Park is gorgeous from the boat house that welcomes you, to the light house, to the quietude of a no engines wilderness. It’s the only park in Wisconsin of its kind, and wears that distinctiveness as a badge of honor. From the lighthouse, you can see Escanaba poke over the horizon on a clear day, with St. Martin Island immediately in front of you, and a stand of Delta County, MI wind turbines behind that. Even if you arrive ona full ferry, you can find yourself alone in the wilderness more easily and quickly than you expect. It should be on every Great Lakes outdoors person’s bucket list.

An empty trail through a verdant wood.
The green tunnel of the Thordarson trail headed toward the light.